"How long have we been married?" I asked my wife Valerie not long ago. "Our next anniversary," she relied after a slight pause, "will be our 20th." As soon as the words were out of her mouth we both dissolved in laughter. But why? It took me a while to bring things into focus, but I think I've understood — it's something we can get at if we take a quick trip back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the debate about the nature of laughter took the form of a scuffle between advocates of the superiority theory and the incongruity theory. In the end, our outburst of laughter can be seen as coming from a combination of incongruity and a special kind of superiority.
Back in 1651, Thomas Hobbes managed to make himself the least popular thinker in England by publishing Leviathan. The book's core premise—that people are essentially selfish—irked just about everyone who read the book, and many more who'd merely heard about it without turning a page. It even earned Hobbes a sobriquet worthy of a modern wrestler: "the monster of Malmsbury." At least one bishop wanted Hobbes put to death, and a great deal of ink spilled from philosopher's quills in an attempt to refute him. The scandal of the book even led the Earl of Shaftesbury, years later, to develop the first truly modern theory of aesthetics, since to love art merely for its beauty was (or so the theory went) to show that something other than self-interest could motivate our passions—therefore refuting the premise of Leviathan.
As you might expect, Hobbes' theory of laughter is a bit nasty: he thinks he laugh at things because we feel superior to them. He puts it this way:
Sudden Glory, is the passion which maketh those Grimaces we call LAUGHTER; and it is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.
It's blunt, and likely to put the laugher on the defensive, but it's not entirely off-base, really. I mean, when we laugh at, say the know-nothing, ideologically blinkered blowhard played by Stephen Colbert, we're laughing from a position of superiority to the character. There's pure dramatic irony at play: we know something about the character (that he's an idiot) that the character does not. We inhabit a position of superiority to him, and this is a big part of Colbert's brand of comedy. We inhabit a position of superiority vis-a-vis a great many comic characters: we like the hapless idiots played by Jim Carey, or the bungling and ineffective characters played by Zach Galifianakis, or the overwrought self-defeating nebbishes played by Woody Allen (well, okay, by the early Woody Allen), but we wouldn't want to be those people. But even so, it's not a perfect theory: we don't laugh when we walk out on the street and see a homeless person coughing and wheezing while begging for change. Unless, of course, we're the sort who attends private Romney fund-raising events and nods sagely while he condemns 47% of the American population.
One of the most influential refutations of Hobbes took place in a series of essays by Francis Hutcheson published in The Dublin Review in 1725. Hutcheson notes that not all situations of superiority cause laughter, and not all laughter comes from situations of superiority: the healthy don't generally laugh at the ill; those who laugh at the application of epic techniques to a trivial topic in a poem like Pope's The Rape of the Lock aren't laughing because they feel superior to someone else.
Hutcheson offers, as an alternative, the notion that laughter comes from the perception of incongruity—specifically, the incongruity between the dignified and the undignified, or, as he puts it, between "ideas of grandeur, dignity, sanctity, perfection, and ideas of meanness, baseness, profanity." So, you know, we laugh when the Pope goes out to bless the gathered flock and lets rip an enormous, irrefutable fart. It's not that we feel superior to the hapless pontiff, but that we're surprised by the incongruity of the situation. But how to account for our laughter we see someone step in dog shit or get a pie in the face, when that person is not a dignitary whose gravitas needs a little levitas? Isn't this Hobbes' laughter by virtue of superiority of position? Hutcheson addresses this by positing that there is an inherent human dignity to all of us at all times—so whenever something undignified happens to anyone, what we're seeing is an incongruity between basic human dignity and the baseness of the particular situation.
The Hobbes-Hutcheson debate certainly doesn't exhaust the topic. Nor does it really resolve anything: Hutcheson's theory covers a lot of ground, and may even be a key to understanding a lot of modernist slapstick, from Kafka to Beckett. But it won't take any of us long to think of an incongruity that isn't funny at all, being either banal ("hey, there's a green Post-It note in here with all the yellow ones") or tragic (you can do a comic riff on Oedipus Rex, as Woody Allen did in his short film "Oedipus Wrecks," but the Sophoclean original is long on incongruity and terribly short on the yuckety-yucks). But I do think both incongruity and superiority of a type can explain the recent outburst of laughter at the idea of an upcoming 20th anniversary.
Firstly, there's the matter of incongruity. When Valerie and I burst out laughing at the idea of us having a 20th anniversary, much of what was going on was the sudden clash between how we think of ourselves and who we actually are at this point. I suppose the thought we had could best be summarized as "how utterly ridiculous to think that we've been married that long—we're not old enough for that!" That is, our self-images as youngish, goofy people more or less playing at the roles of being adults was at odds with the incongruous notion that we could possibly be the kind of middle-aged people with enough responsibility and gravitas to have nurtured a two-decade long marriage. It's kind of Hutcheson in reverse: he felt we had an inherent dignity, and that we laughed when something undermined this, since it was incongruous with our dignified state. Valerie and I had assumed a certain levity toward ourselves, a certain youthful carelessness, and now here we were with the calendar reminding us that we were in fact long-married people, with actual careers and actual responsibilities and an actual kid and an actual house and actual retirement plans and all of the other trappings of serious bourgeois people in their forties. The incongruity was just killing us!
But there was more to our laughter, which was the result of a double whammy effect, with superiority humor layered on top of incongruity humor. At almost the same moment that we felt the incongruity between our images of ourselves and the truth revealed by the calendar, we also experienced a kind of superiority to ourselves.
For Hobbes, we laugh when we feel superior to someone else, or find ourselves suddenly elevated above some set of circumstances. But in the recent anniversary incident, Valerie and I felt superior not to others, but to ourselves—at least to ourselves mere moments before. Almost simultaneously with laughing about how incongruous it was for people like us (you know: perpetually 25 years old, at least in our own minds) to have become middle aged, we realized how ridiculous our assumption that we were still somehow kids really was. We were suddenly elevated above our previous unconscious assumption of youth, since it was so manifestly there, and so manifestly wrong. We weren't just laughing at the incongruity of self and self-image: we were laughing at how foolish our self-image had been. The "sudden glory" of which Hobbes speaks was there, for us, in the form of an sudden elevation from delusion to realization. And it was funny, in just the way its funny when we suddenly realize we've spent three minutes swearing and glowering because we've been trying to open the door to the office with the key to the Honda.
They say the 20th anniversary is the China and platinum anniversary. I don't believe it. For me, it's the anniversary of laughing one's ass off.